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Sir John Dankworth & Dame Cleo Laine: founders of The Stables

Sir John Dankworth CBE

Sir John had remarkable vision and energy when he and his wife Dame Cleo Laine founded Wavendon Allmusic Plan Ltd (WAP), the charity that owns The Stables, back in 1969.

From its early beginnings in an old stable block in Wavendon, Milton Keynes, The Stables has grown in size and stature and is now ranked as one of the top 10 music venues in the UK, presenting over 350 concerts each year. During its first 40 years, John provided ongoing support for The Stables and its educational programmes which feature the National Youth Music Camps. He and Dame Cleo shared a belief that there was only one kind of music – great music, all music.

Perhaps best known as one of the world’s leading jazz exponents, composer for television and film, he also composed for and conducted many of the world’s top orchestras. Born on 20th September 1927, John showed early proficiency on the clarinet and by the age of 17 had entered London's Royal Academy of Music. Benny Goodman was his first idol, but he soon became impressed by the work of the great Charlie Parker, and took up the saxophone as a result. He was voted Musician of the Year in Britain in 1949, the beginning of a succession of such honours, which included top composer, arranger and leader of both small and big bands, and was to continue unabated for the next fourteen years in Britain. Later the accolades took on different and often more international forms. During this period John’s recording activities included two hit records, "Experiments with Mice" (1956) and "African Waltz" (1960).

In 1959 John’s large jazz orchestra played several engagements in the United States, the first of countless such visits by its leader. The trip included a week-long concert season sharing the bill with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in its heyday. Around this time John first began devoting his musical attentions to the film world. And so began a decade or so of dozens of movie scores, including "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", "The Servant", "Morgan", "Accident" and "Modesty Blaise", working for directors like Karel Reisz, Peter Hall, John Schlesinger, Joseph Losey and Henry Hathaway. During this time he also served as musical director for Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Sophie Tucker and many others. His composing career extended to the theatre, with commissions in Britain from the National Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as two musicals both involving his wife, singer Cleo Laine. He also composed an opera/ballet for Houston Ballet, several works for choir and orchestra, a set of symphonic variations for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a piano concerto and a string quartet. In 1985 John founded the London Symphony Orchestra's Summer Pops, with which he continued to be associated as Artistic Director until 1990. John continued to conduct symphony orchestras throughout the world, including the majority of the great American and Canadian organisations, as well as in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and, of course, Great Britain.

John lived with his wife, Dame Cleo Laine, in Wavendon where in 1969 they founded their first charity, The Wavendon Allmusic Plan, with the aim of helping people broaden their views about music through performance and musical education. In the converted stable block in the grounds of their home they established a centre that has since become internationally renowned. The Stables has been host to many world famous artists, and some of today's top professional musicians and singers have benefited from its education projects in the early stages of their careers.

Having realised their original vision, John and Cleo decided in 1999 to set up a further charity. The Wavendon Foundation was formed with the objective of raising funds to benefit both individual young artistes in need of financial aid, and organisations seeking support for music education projects.

John was awarded honorary Doctorates by the University of Cambridge, the University of York and the Open University, and in the USA by Boston's Berklee College of Music. He was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and Leeds College of Music. Elected a member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, he received the Freedom of the City of London in 1994. He was also awarded the Company's Silver Medal for Lifetime Contribution to British Jazz, and was honoured in the annual British Jazz Awards a number of times for his achievements in and services to British Jazz. His services to music earned him a CBE and a Knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen.

Sir John Dankworth sadly passed away on the 40th anniversary of the first performance in The Stables on 6th February 2010.

Dame Cleo Laine

Born in a London suburb, Cleo showed early singing talent, which was nurtured by her Jamaican father and English mother who sent her to singing and dancing lessons. It was not, however, until she reached her mid-twenties that she applied herself seriously to singing. She auditioned successfully for a band led by musician John Dankworth, under whose banner she performed until 1958, in which year the two were married. Then began an illustrious career as a singer and actress.

In 1958 she played the lead in a new play at London's famous Royal Court Theatre, home of the new wave of playwrights of the 1950s - Pinter, Osborne and the like. This led to other stage performances such as the musical Valmouth in 1959, the play A Time to Laugh (with Robert Morley and Ruth Gordon) in 1962, and eventually to her show-stopping Julie in the Wendy Toye production of Showboat at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1971. During this period she had two spectacular recording successes. "You'll Answer to Me" reached the British Top Ten at the precise time that Cleo was 'prima donna' in the 1961 Edinburgh Festival production of the Kurt Weill opera/ballet "The Seven Deadly Sins". In 1964 her "Shakespeare and All that Jazz" album received widespread critical acclaim, and to this day remains an important milestone in her identification with the more unusual aspects of a singer's repertoire.

1972 marked the start of Cleo's international activities, with a triumphant first tour of Australia. Shortly afterwards, her career in the United States was launched with a concert at New York's Lincoln Center, followed in 1973 by the first of many Carnegie Hall appearances. Coast-to-coast tours of the U.S. and Canada soon followed, and with them a succession of record albums and television appearances. This led, after several nominations, to Cleo's first Grammy award, in recognition of the live recording of her 1983 Carnegie concert.

Other important recordings during that time were duet albums with Ray Charles ("Porgy and Bess") and Mel Tormé, as well as Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" which won Cleo a classical Grammy nomination.

Cleo's relationship with the musical theatre, started in Britain, continued in the United States with starring performances in "A Little Night Music" and "The Merry Widow" (Michigan Opera). In 1985 she originated the role of Princess Puffer in the Broadway hit musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", for which she received a Tony nomination, and in 1989 she received the Los Angeles critics' acclaim for her portrayal of the Witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods". Los Angeles was also the scene of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Cleo by the US recording industry (1991).

In 1979 Cleo received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen for services to music, and in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in June 1997 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire. She has also been awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Boston's Berklee College of Music in the United States and, in the United Kingdom from Cambridge University, the University of York, the Open University and the University of Luton. In 1998 the Worshipful Company of Musicians awarded her their Silver Medal for a Lifetime Contribution to British Jazz, and the British Jazz Awards have recognised her a number of times, including with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.